LOS ANGELES -- Over the coming days and weeks, baseball historians and commentators will debate the merits of the 2017 World Series and put it in its proper place in history. Was it the best ever, or the third, fifth or seventh? That's a matter of personal opinion, and something that can be discussed on social media or neighborhood barstools across America for fans who are so inclined.
If constant plot twists, engaging storylines and captivating baseball are the barometer, the 2017 Series is on a short list of matchups that will stand the test of time.
As the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers dragged themselves off the field late Wednesday night, the common denominators were soreness, sleep deprivation and a sense of emotional depletion. As players on both the winning and losing sides offered their takes, you got the distinct impression the Astros didn't win this World Series as much as survive it.
"I don't know if I had another inning in me," Houston catcher Brian McCann said. "I'm spent. I'm exhausted. This has been just an incredible experience. The season is such a grind, and there are so many emotions that go into it. I love these teammates of mine. We competed from Day 1, and we beat a lot of good teams to get where we're at."
Or as Houston outfielder Josh Reddick observed, "I think we all reached limits that we didn't know we had in this series. And I think you could say the same thing for the guys across the way."
The Astros and Dodgers did not save the best for last, so the 2017 World Series might be slightly diminished on the list of all-time great October matchups. A classic Game 7 is the cherry on top, but there was no Bill Mazeroski cavorting around the bases to end it, or Jack Morris-John Smoltz pitchers' duel, or Luis Gonzalez blooper over second base to serve as the emotional punctuation mark. The Astros took an early lead, gradually sapped the energy from the Dodger Stadium crowd of 54,124 over the course of three hours and 37 minutes in the finale, and ground out a 5-1 victory.
When fans in Houston, Los Angeles and living rooms across America reflect upon this series, they'll remember a lot of the crucial elements that make for compelling sports theater. These teams each won 100 games during the regular season. The momentum swings were profound. The human element was ever-present.
The Astros and Dodgers are both regarded as "analytically based" teams, which suggests an almost robotic and methodical approach to baseball. That knee-jerk characterization missed the emotional element that made the 2017 Series so compelling. The respective rosters might have been conceived in a lab, or on a spreadsheet, but the Astros and Dodgers played with a passion and a camaraderie that fosters a common purpose and can't be faked.
"Intrinsically, we believe in certain things and philosophies, and as long as we believe in it and our players believe in it, I can't tell what's going to follow as far as how organizations are going to respond," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "And I don't really care. But I know that we have a thing that we believe in, and it's worked."
Even before the World Series, consider all the work it took the two league champions to get here. The Dodgers recovered from a 1-16 free fall in September to sweep the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series and eliminate the defending champion Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series. The Astros made it through the American League playoffs by dispatching the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, iconic teams with illustrious histories.
"And some pretty big payrolls," said Astros owner Jim Crane, laughing.
Over the course of seven World Series games, the teams combined for an array of memorable moments and scenarios:
• Five of the seven games were decided by one or two runs -- the most such games in a World Series since 2000. Each team scored exactly 34 runs.
• Los Angeles and Houston combined for a World Series-record 25 home runs, and the Astros set a record for a single team with 15.
• Houston's 7-6 victory in Game 2 was notable for eight homers -- five of which came in extra innings. The Dodgers were 98-0 on the season when leading after eight innings, but lost after Marwin Gonzalez took Kenley Jansen deep in the ninth.
• Game 4 at Minute Maid Park was decided in the ninth inning when the Dodgers scored five runs to break a 1-1 tie. Cody Bellinger snapped an 0-for-13 funk with a crucial hit in the seventh inning and drove in the winning run in the ninth.
• In Game 5, the Astros rallied from deficits of 4-0 and 7-4 against Clayton Kershaw to win 13-12. The Dodgers had won 113 straight games when leading by four runs, and entered the game with a 49-1 record since 2012 when Kershaw pitched with a four-run lead.
"I have some seats in Houston back home, and I hate to sit there because I'm on TV," Crane said. "And when we get down 4-0, I'm ready to jump out of the building. It was just back-and-forth and back-and-forth. But the one thing I know from watching these guys is that we came back late a lot of times, so you could never really count us out of the game."
Beyond the big hits and confrontations, there were a slew of odd and quirky moments to remember. The series began with Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel, a couple of bearded, left-handed warriors, squaring off in record 103-degree heat in Los Angeles.
In Game 2, Vin Scully might have staged the best ceremonial first pitch in history when he summoned Fernando Valenzuela from the dugout for relief. Chris Taylor deflected a ball with his cap, Yasiel Puig flung his glove to the ground in anger and umpire Laz Diaz took an errant pickoff throw in the thigh, and those moments were all lost in the shuffle with the Astros' late home run barrage.
The series took a pause for controversy in Game 3, when Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel homered off Yu Darvish, then made a racially insensitive gesture in the dugout that was captured on national television. The incident carried over to the Los Angeles leg of the series, when Dodgers fans booed Gurriel with fervor each time he stepped to the plate.
When the Series returned to Los Angeles for Game 6, everything was set up for Justin Verlander to finish off the Dodgers and put his stamp on the Series. But Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher danced on the dugout to fire up the crowd, and Enrique Hernandez celebrated in a Chewbacca Halloween costume after the Dodgers beat the Astros to take it to Game 7.
In hindsight, youthful exuberance became fashionable on a grand scale in this series. Carlos Correa, a kid who usually refrains from displays of showmanship, flipped his bat in celebration after a home run. Bellinger shushed the crowd at Minute Maid after a three-run homer, while Joc Pederson circled the bases and gave the "money" sign to the dugout on his way to home plate. Then there was Puig, with his blue hair and snatch catches, either flapping his tongue or licking his bats, depending on the circumstances.
Those displays of emotion once seemed anathema to a crotchety old ball guy like Jeff Bagwell, who made the Hall of Fame as an Astro and now works in the team's front office. Bagwell made the trip to Los Angeles to cheer on the boys at the end, and he revealed that he has grudgingly come to accept the bat flips and other departures from baseball tradition he once found so distasteful.
"I would never have done that when I played, because I knew there was a chance I'd strike out the next five times," Bagwell said. "But it's OK. Baseball has changed, and I have to get used to it.
"I was an old-school guy. I used to sit there, and when guys were on the top step I would say, 'Get in the dugout.' After watching this series and this whole entire playoffs, I'm cool with it now. These kids are having a great time out there. You can see it in their faces, and that's fun to watch as a fan. I enjoyed it."
It's possible several players who were on the field in this series will one day join Bagwell and Craig Biggio in the Hall of Fame. Verlander, Kershaw and Carlos Beltran are already ticketed for Cooperstown or close to it, and Jose Altuve, George Springer, Correa, Corey Seager and Bellinger are off to fast starts.
"I'm a baseball fan, and I get an amazing view of the talent here each night," McCann said. "We're going to look back in five or 10 or 15 years, and people are going to say, 'I can't believe all those guys were on the same team.'"
The Dodgers are similarly blessed, even if they were in no mood to celebrate Wednesday night. After winning 104 games and reaching the World Series for the first time in 29 years, they came to realize the truth in Tommy Lasorda's proclamation: You "haven't done s---" if you don't win Game 7.
"It was an incredible roller coaster of emotions," pitcher Rich Hill said. "This could possibly be one of the best World Series of all time, as I've been told. The teams were very evenly matched and had an incredible amount of talent on both sides. There's no doubt that we could see this next year, with the young group over here and the young group over there. That's a heck of a team."
The 2018 postseason is 11 months away, but that's an appealing prospect to ponder. The only thing better than reflecting on the 2017 World Series is the thought of a return engagement between the Astros and Dodgers next fall.